A good storyteller will make the ordinary seem extraordinary; they will hold their audience captive by describing an event in such a way that everyone in the room relates to it, relives it.
When I pick up a book by a favourite author, I often don’t read the back cover too closely, I trust them to make anything interesting. In the same way, I didn’t do too much research on the speakers before attending The Story event at Conway Hall in London, I knew they’d be brilliant. And they were. I’ve listed a few talks that really stood out for me below:
Human rights journalist, Musa Okwanga, spoke about writing with what he calls ‘moral fury’ – a blend of cold reason and almost volcanic anger. Having been on Twitter for over five years, and also being a football writer, he is no stranger to waking up to insults, and is quite good at deflecting or ignoring them. In fact, he hasn’t read a comment under any one of his articles since 2010. But the backlash he gets whenever he writes anything, no matter how mild, in defence of women’s rights startles him and makes him realise the very different consequences faced by different groups of people when they publish their work online. He thinks that fury against women is too often the lava that runs just under the surface of social media.
Okwanga said that now is a worrying time for writers and artists who are trying to deal as fearlessly as possible with the pressing issues of our time. In Mexico, in retaliation for their coverage of the drugs war, bloggers have been disembowelled and hung from bridges. The world knows what happened in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. In Tajikistan, journalists are being tortured. In Bangladesh, atheist bloggers and publishers of secular writing have been hacked to death in the street. Last year, Egypt and China imprisoned record numbers of journalists.
Okwanga says: “People who write with open wounds are often accused of being “bleeding-heart liberals”, as if compassion were a bad thing. As it stands, though, there aren’t nearly enough of us – and maybe our hearts still don’t bleed enough.”
Next, environment broadcaster Gaia Vince, talked to us about her decision to travel the world in what she calls ‘the age of the humans’ to see what life is really like for the people on the frontline of the planet we’ve made for ourselves. Gaia found people doing the most astonishing things to solve the problems that we have created in a populous planet with fewer resources. She discovered artificial glaciers in the shadows of the Himalayas that farmers in the principal town of Ladakh had created to combat global warming.
In Peru, she came across villagers manually painting their mountains white! The area had long been denuded of its snowy, white peaks so they decided to paint it white based on the simple scientific principle that when sunlight is reflected off a white surface, solar energy passes back through the atmosphere and out into space, rather than warming the Earth’s surface.
I was particularly fascinated by Daniel Meadows, a photographer and storyteller who has spent a lifetime recording British society, capturing remarkable aspects of human life through pictures, audio recordings and short movies. He is best known for his 1973-74 journey around England in the Free Photographic Omnibus when he travelled 10,000 miles in a converted double-decker and shot 958 portraits in “free studio” sessions on the streets of 22 different British towns and cities.
Meadows made me consider the importance of documenting culture; many would argue that the advent of social media means we capture enough of our lives but I think it is quite an inferior medium to the craft of documentary.
The brilliantly-named Wolfgang Wild (pictured above) told us that when he was young he always wanted to time travel. He worked across the museum and archive world for the best part of a decade and saw some objects and pictures that he believed had a seemingly untapped power – a power to disrupt our sense of time, to dissolve the barrier between present and past. He figured that if he could harness that power, he might be able to build something akin to a time-machine. And so, Retronaut was born – “the past like you wouldn’t believe”. In 2014, Wild licensed Retronaut to Mashable. He aims to take our map of time and tear tiny holes in it; to scour the world’s archives and museums, physical and digital, looking for material that just doesn’t fit.
When I left Conway Hall at the end of the day, I stood for a moment, blinking in the daylight. I felt as if I had done a fair bit of travelling, through both time and space. Hearing the speakers’ stories inspired me to make my own even better and more far-reaching.